Interview: Director Michael Showalter on queer drama Spoiler Alert; “I definitely think there’s a desire to move past stories that are about people coming out”

Based on Michael Ausiello’s best-selling memoir “Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies,” Spoiler Alert is a heartwarming, funny and life-affirming story of how Michael’s relationship with his partner Kit is transformed and deepened when one of them falls ill.

Bringing Michael’s story to life is director Michael Showalter, an alt-comedy auteur whose eclectic resume ranges from such televisual fare as Grace and Frankie and I Love That For You, to big screen laughers as Wet Hot American Summer and the biographical drama The Eyes of Tammy Faye, which earned Jessica Chastain an Academy Award for Best Actress.

As Spoiler Alert arrives in Australian cinemas this week (you can read our review here), Peter Gray spoke with the director about the importance of authenticity in telling a queer story, his confidence in navigating comedy, and testing the chemistry of his actors via Zoom.

Congratulations on the film.  First of all, I bawled my eyes out.  So, thank you for that.

You’re welcome.  I guess? (Laughs)

Chemistry is always key with these films, and I would have to say it’s a testament to your direction as much as it is what transpires between Jim (Parsons) and Ben (Aldridge).  Did you know they were the two people you wanted? How did their casting come about for you?

Jim is the one who optioned the book, so I learned of the project first through reading one of the trade websites that his company had optioned the book.  I got interested in it from being a fan of Jim’s and wanting to work with him, and then asking if they had a director.  They sent me the book and I really loved it.  We knew Jim was going to be playing the Michael character, and then it was a question of who was going to play Kit.  We met with a bunch of people, but when Jim, Ben and I all Zoomed together one and chatted – I was in LA, Jim was in New York, Ben was in London – I felt very certain that Ben was the right person for it.  And I think Jim did as well.

Did you find that essentially having a chemistry read over Zoom makes that process more difficult? Or is there still a sense that shines through?

Yeah, kind of.  Probably.  I sort of cast a lot from my gut.  It’s a feeling I get about a person.  Just the energy they have, you know? That sense of their personality.  I can get a sense of who they are and what they are about on a call.  In terms of chemistry there’s so much you can’t predict.  There’s so much you can’t plan for.  But we had a great time, the three of us, just chatting and making each other laugh, and talking about the material and the project.

I think we all kind of felt like (Ben) had a lot of the qualities that we were looking for in Kit, in terms of him being a great looking guy, but also having this real authenticity about him.  He’s a good looking guy, but he’s not vain or anything like that.  He’s charming but there’s so much vulnerability and humanity there.

From a queer man’s perspective Spoiler Alert hit a lot of home truths that elevated an already relatable story.  It was amazing to see this story and these characters presented in a natural way.

Thank you.  Yeah, it was very important to me that the audience feel so much of the movie is watching them falling in love and getting to know each other.  I wanted you to feel those scenes as being real and authentic.  I definitely take that as a huge compliment that you felt that way.

I know the camera that was used in the film was actually Kit’s camera.  Was there a lot of Michael’s own personal belongings that he let open for you to use here?

All kinds of stuff.  The camera and the photos that you see on Kit’s wall on his bulletin board…there’s that scene where they take down all of the artwork before the parents come home (and) a lot of that is Kit’s own actual photography.  To have Michael there with all of those original things really added a whole other layer to the experience, for sure.

I asked Ben if he felt any nervousness in knowing that he was going to be starring opposite Sally Field.  Obviously, you’ve directed her before.  Did you always have her in mind for this role?

Definitely when we started working on the script we knew this was a role that we wanted Sally Field to play.  One of the screenwriters, David Marshall Grant, had worked with her on a TV show called Brothers and Sisters, so between David and myself we had a bunch of connections with her and really felt like she was absolutely going to be the right actor for this role.  And she has a son who’s gay, so her own connections to the story made it feel even more like a good fit for us.

And looking at the films you’ve directed, there’s obviously a lot of confidence in comedy for you.  I have to say They Came Together is just incredible.  Has comedy always been where you’ve felt confident in delivering your stories?

Yeah, my path started with comedy.  Sketch comedy and improvisational comedy and what have you, so I think that has always been the type of lens I see stories through.  And that’s what it was with this book that Michael wrote (because) “Spoiler Alert” is so funny.  It’s dealing with this incredible tragedy and the huge grief he deals with, but he’s using humour to talk about it.  I connected to the story in that way.  And I look for projects where I can combine those two things, because I also like serious drama as well.  I’m always looking for ways to meld the two together wherever possible.

As I said, I’m just really excited that we’re seeing this more confident way of telling queer stories.  It makes me very, very happy…

I feel the same way.  It was great to have the studio so behind it and so supportive of it (too).  Both in the casting and the way we wanted to tell the story.  I definitely think there’s a desire to move past stories that are about people coming out or the isolation and alienation of that.  Let’s just tell stories about these characters that are in relationships and tell them in a way that assumes the audience is already totally fine with the fact that they’re gay.  I like that it assumes the audience doesn’t need to be educated about that.

Spoiler Alert is screening in Australian theatres from February 9th, 2023.


Peter Gray

Seasoned film critic. Gives a great interview. Penchant for horror. Unashamed fan of Michelle Pfeiffer and Jason Momoa.